On 25 October, the issue of crustacean die-off in Tees Bay finally made it to a hearing at the parliamentary Environment Committee. And so it was that a group of MPs met with a range of stakeholders – representatives of Defra agencies and the Tees harbour authority, fishers and a group of academics who had undertaken research into the cause of the die-off. The panel had two issues to consider – the probable cause of the massive crustacean die-off that continues to plague Tees Bay, and the probable risk in allowing dredge material from the South Bank Quay project to be disposed of at sea.
No one attended to defend the South Bank Quay project directly. Oddly.
It is now just over a year since the first die-off was reported. Defra’s conclusion that the cause was naturally occurring algal bloom remains controversial and many are convinced that the ongoing problem is the result of toxic sediment being dredged from the Tees Estuary. If that turns out to be the case, then the imminent dumping at sea of millions of tonnes of sediment as part of the South Bank Quay project is about to make a bad situation much, much worse.
A parliamentary committee hearing is wholly unlike the House of Commons pantomime we have all come to know and loathe. There is no shouting, bickering, or grandstanding. Committee MPs have been presented with written evidence prior to the hearing, and the hearing itself is an opportunity to cross-examine those selected to present evidence. It’s all very calm and orderly.
At four hours, it’s also very long. But, as it turned out, still not really long enough. Tees Valley Monitor submitted written evidence to the committee. Extensive coverage of the hearing has been published in The Northern Echo and The Gazette Live. To see the televised hearing, click here.
The case for the defence
Rachel Hartnell (RH) put forward the case that the die-off was probably due to Harmful Algal Bloom. Trudi Wakelin (TW) argued that the dredging for major civil engineering projects is carefully evaluated against strict standards and is safe. Jerry Hopkinson (JH) of PD Ports argued that the maintenance dredging that it carries out routinely is safe and was not the cause of the die-off. Mark Rice from the Environment Agency (EA) was not cross-examined at length, and the EA got off much more lightly than it deserved (in our opinion).
Three researchers – Gary Caldwell (GC), Rodney Forster, and Tim Deere-Jones – argued that the evidence for algal bloom was weak, and a much stronger case could be made for pyridine contamination. As this most likely originated in the Tees Estuary, there needs to be a temporary moratorium on dredging for the South Bank Quay project, until the contamination source is properly dealt with.
Joe Redfern (JR) and Stan Rennie (SR), on behalf of local fishers, argued that Defra had not been willing to collaborate with them to investigate the cause of the die-off, and that catches have continued to be very poor across the region throughout this year.
David McCandless (DM) of the North East Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (NEIFCA) argued that catches were close to seasonal averages, and that fishers and Defra were working collaboratively to investigate the die-off issues.
RH, on behalf of the Centre for the Environment, Fisheries, and Aquaculture Science (Cefas), explained that their hypothesis was that the die-off was the result of the dual action of one algal bloom (K. Mikimotoi) which, once it died back, created anoxic (oxygen depletion) conditions on the seabed, and was followed rapidly by a second that released a substance known as okadaic acid.
She explained, upon questioning, that they closed the investigation at a point where they could no longer obtain evidence directly from the die-off zone. Further experimental work on the effect on crustaceans of okadaic acid in anoxic conditions was being undertaken in the laboratory.
When questioned as to why pyridine had been discounted as a possible cause, she explained that it is unstable. It floats and evaporates after a short time. Also, it does not bioaccumulate (gradually absorb) in crabs.
An alternative explanation was later presented by Gary Caldwell, whose presentation of evidence was nothing short of spellbinding. His presentation was the result of research carried out by four university teams, commissioned earlier this year by the North East Fishing Collective. He explained how pyridine could have been transported from the source at Tees mouth to other areas of the bay, how it is toxic to crabs in very low concentrations, why it is lethal without bioaccumulation, and how the observed effects of pyridine on crab in the laboratory was consistent with the observed symptoms reported at the height of the die-off event. Detailed, technical, and crystal clear.
Now, we appreciate that some, for their own reasons, may wish to cast doubt on this explanation. But one thing is very striking, which is the parallel between what the universities have done and what Cefas has done – pyridine as the cause on the one hand, and okadaic acid/anoxia as the cause on the other.
The universities began work earlier this year, conducted experiments and undertook site investigation, analysed the results and wrote them up. Cefas, meanwhile, started its investigation last autumn, claims to have been conducting experiments in the laboratory since closing the investigation at the February, but has nothing to show for it other than a vague statement of intent.
At this point, we think the panel should be asking themselves, Is that it? Is that really the best Cefas can do?
The case against the MMO
Had he stopped at this point, his presentation of evidence would have been unforgettable. But he wasn’t finished. He then moved on to the inadequacy of the Marine Management Organisation’s regulatory regime for awarding licences for capital dredging, such as that for the South Bank Quay. This part was of particular interest to us, as this was the subject of the evidence we submitted.
The discussion moved on to the issue of the safety of the capital dredging currently being undertaken as part of the South Bank Quay project. Trudi Wakelin for the MMO gave a detailed account of how the results of sediment sampling are evaluated and the safety of sediments for disposal at sea is determined; detailed, but misleading in significant respects. It is perhaps unfortunate that she was not cross-examined by the panel on the veracity of her statements.
The gist of her presentation was that contamination levels of a range of chemicals in sediment are judged against what are know as ‘Action Levels’. If the concentration is higher than Level 1, there is some cause for concern; if it exceeds Level 2, it is considered too toxic for safe disposal at sea.
Except that, in reality, they sometimes set these standards aside and use what they call a ‘weight of evidence’ approach. The ‘weight of evidence’ approach takes into account ‘historical circumstances’ and in the Tees means that contaminants in concentrations above Level 2 are still allowed to be disposed of at sea. They call it ‘regional contextualisation’.
We have reported on this ‘regional contextualisation’ before, but since then we’ve taken it a step further and investigated just how much leeway they give themselves.
As a preliminary, we should point out that phase 1 of the South Bank Quay project involves the removal of 715,000 m3 of dredge material. Of this material, one area has been determined to be too toxic for disposal at sea (referred to in the chart below as ‘Borehole 34’). This area contains 125,000 m3.
We examined the results of sediment sampling for the South Bank Quay, focusing particularly on hydrocarbons. Testing is undertaken for 22 of these. We had hoped to measure their concentration against Action Levels, but this was not possible as the set of UK Action Levels is deficient, in that, for hydrocarbons only Level 1 is specified. So, we had to turn to the, admittedly more stringent, recognised international standards, known as CSQG, which also works with two levels.
Sampling was done in several locations at a range of different depths. So, we considered all of them. For the area that the MMO has determined to be suitable for disposal at sea, we had 474 samples. Of these 269 exceeded the CSQG upper level (known as PEL).
We then set about finding out by how much they exceeded this level. For this, we chose two hydrocarbons as an example – Naphthalene and Phenanthrene. We gathered all of the sample results for these two chemicals and rank ordered them. The result is shown in the chart below:
With upper limits for these contaminants at 391 and 544 respectively, 30 out of 79 exceed the limit, many of them by a very large margin.
Still this material is licensed for disposal at sea. And the sediment contains high levels of a wide range of other toxins as well. And there are toxins in that sediment that have not been tested for.
But Trudi Wakelin for the MMO went a step further than claiming to apply action levels when evaluating sediment samples. She also asserted that the MMO complies with international standards, the standards of the Ospar Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic. In fact, she mentioned this at least twice, in case we missed it the first time.
In reality, the MMO does not comply with OSPAR. Creating action levels and then setting them aside whenever it suits them is not OSPAR compliant. Having a policy of ‘regional contextualisation’ is not OSPAR compliant. The report entitled “OSPAR Guidelines for the Management of Dredged Material” contains neither of these things.
The guidelines do, on the other hand, contain the following:
“5.13 If dredged material is disposed of at sea when one or more criteria exceed the upper level, a Contracting Party should: a. … identify and develop source control measures with a view to meeting the criteria … ; and b. utilise disposal management techniques, including the use of containment or treatment methods, to mitigate the impact of the dumping operation on the marine environment … ; and c. report the fact to the Secretariat, including the reason for permitting the disposal, in accordance with the requirements of section 1b (i) of the format for the Annual Reporting of Dumping Permits Issued.”
Now if the MMO has reported its licensing of the Tees Estuary dredge to OSPAR, Trudi Wakelin omitted to mention it.
The OSPAR document gives a list of contaminants that should be tested for in all cases, then adds:
“Based upon local information of sources of contamination (point sources or diffuse sources) or historic inputs, other determinants may require analysis.”
It was on this issue that GC weighed in against the MMO, pointing out that it makes no attempt to tailor the suite of contaminants to be tested for to local conditions in the Tees. No attempt has been made to map the full range of chemicals historically dumped there, and therefore there is an unquantifiable risk to marine life of dislodging it and disposing of it out at sea.
(It was a point also picked up by Joe Redfern in his evidence, where he stated that what fishers are most afraid of is the imminent risk of another similar incident. The next one is likely to kill off the inshore fishing industry in the region entirely.)
Until proper testing of sediment is undertaken, GC added, there needs to be a temporary moratorium on capital dredging. Then he dropped the bombshell that he has been in discussion with Defra officials with a view to working collaboratively and has received a request from them in writing to work together to stop the dredging of the South Bank.
(We couldn’t help but wonder whether Defra’s approach might have come from a junior employee acting without authorisation. After all, this kind of thing has happened at Teesworks before, hasn’t it?)
It was the committee chair, Robert Goodwill, who kicked off the demolition of DM’s argument, by observing that, in a recent report on the health of crustacean stocks, he had included the catch of non-local nomadic boats that fish well beyond inshore waters but land some of their catch at Hartlepool, thus distorting the data.
JR commented, as regards collaboration between Defra and the local fishers that, when fishers thought they were working together with Defra over the issue, they found via a press release that the agency had closed the case.
SR gave some figures for catch from some local fishers in Hartlepool, which were manifestly very poor. He added that numbers of females with live eggs (which are thrown back when caught) is also very low, meaning that catches will remain low for the foreseeable future. And finally, he reported evidence from merchants who are finding that many of the crab and lobster they are buying arrive in poor health and are dying off. All of which give an entirely different picture of the health of crustacean stocks than that given in the NEIFCA report.
Maintenance dredging and the initial die-off
GC was careful to restrict his call for a moratorium to capital dredging. He drew the line at proposing that maintenance dredging should be halted as well. Yet the role of maintenance dredging in the initial die-off has received a lot of attention. In particular the work of the UKD Orca at Tees mouth just before the die-off was first reported.
The accusation that this dredger went deep into sediments not normally disturbed has been widely repeated (including by us). Jerry Hopkinson of PD Ports, the harbour authority, challenged these allegations. He explained that the Tees requires frequent dredging to maintain the specified channel depth for shipping, in particular around Tees mouth where sand accumulates. The company brought in the UKD Orca to undertake dredging at this location over a ten-day period. The Orca completed the job much more quickly than the company’s own dredgers would have done but did not exceed specified depth.
We should point out that we have recently fact-checked this account and found it to be entirely plausible.
He also points out, entirely reasonably, that PD Ports dredge continuously, and their practice hasn’t changed in years. That we can also accept without reservation.
Then come the awkward bits. Firstly, he concludes that dredging is not the cause of the die-off. Secondly, he asserts that the Orca removed an accumulation of ‘virgin sand’ that had washed into Tees mouth from offshore. On the one hand, dredging may well still be a means whereby toxic sediment is disturbed and transported. On the other, calling it ‘virgin sand’ is simply inaccurate.
While it’s true that sand from offshore accumulates around Tees mouth, it’s also true that by the time it’s removed to the spoil site, Tees Bay A, it carries a degree of contamination. When we challenged him on it earlier this year, he agreed willingly that this is the case. It is, after all, well documented in a set of reports known as SLAB5 , prepared by the MMO and Cefas, which analysed sediment samples from spoil sites around the country.
He also made the perfectly reasonable point to us that, while the sand is contaminated, that is at a background level and has never led to a die-off event such as we saw last autumn. There are two things to note about this contamination, however.
The first is that it is not typical of dredge spoil sites elsewhere around the coast. The second is that there are two spoil sites in Tees Bay, and SLAB5 found contamination in both of them. This despite the fact that the second site – Tees Bay C – is very rarely used.
Now, the only possible source of that contamination is the Tees estuary either through movement of contaminated sediment on the riverbed or run off from the banks. And this was being discharged into the estuary and from there to the sands at Tees mouth even when the land on the south bank of the river was largely derelict.
That land is now a hive of activity, however – encompassing both construction and demolition. We believe that it is an entirely reasonable hypothesis that this activity has led to an increase in the level of chemical discharge from the estuary into the sand at Tees mouth. It appears be something countenanced neither by Defra nor by PD Ports.
Geraint Davies MP did question whether the intensity of the dredge (which was carried out over a much shorter period than would have been the case with PD Ports’ own dredgers) would have led to a greater churn of the sediment than would have normally been the case. Jerry Hopkinson disputed this, but Davies’ was drawing inference from some of the evidence presented to the committee. In the draft report prepared by the universities, satellite imagery of the area initially affected by whatever caused the die-off was the dredge site at Tees mouth, not the spoil zone, Tees Bay A, which is 7km off the coast. So that churning up of sediment matters. The Orca is not yet off the hook.
The committee and the mayor
The committee will shortly present its conclusions on the twin issues of the last die-off and the safety of capital dredging in the Tees. The evidence given by the fishers and the academics was powerful, but ultimately limited in scope. Gary Caldwell called for an investigation to find the source of the pyridine. That will not happen unless there is the political will to demand that the veil of secrecy that surrounds the work on the Teesworks site is lifted. That may be anathema to Tees Valley Mayor, Ben Houchen, who prefers to rant on social media rather than turn up to the committee to defend his project (and there is no doubt that he would have been given leave to attend had he chosen to do so) but public confidence will not be restored until that investigation takes place and the information published in full.
Will the committee commit to that? We wait in hope.